An invitation to explore the archive of rare books preserved in the Natural History Museum does not come about every day. It’s a rare privilege, afforded only to a select few. As part of our collaboration with the Museum, our team was honoured and humbled to receive the invitation, sparking the basis for the designs in our collaboration.
Drawing on works from the Museum, our design crew created three bespoke embroideries – a bird, a bee and a whale – each symbolising an aspect of the collaboration. From historical learning, to current environmental realities and hopes for the future…
John James Audubon’s illustrative work, The Birds of America, is a portal into the vibrant natural world, containing 435 life-size hand-coloured engravings of North American Birds. Audubon revolutionised the way wildlife was depicted; he was one of the first naturalists to observe his subjects closely in their natural habitat, at a time when most scientific illustrations were made using deceased taxonomic subjects, without the context of their natural environments, behaviours and movements.
His masterpiece contains a myriad of seabirds and the depiction of the Roseate Tern above, diving towards the water, beautifully captures the grace and agility of the species. Audubon himself described them as "Humming-birds of the sea" due to their light and graceful movements. However, they are also fearsome defenders of their breeding grounds and will attack interlopers on sight, reminding us that nature will not hesitate to defend itself when the need arises.
In contrast to the resilience of Audubon’s Tern, the humble bee represents just how fragile the natural world can be when the balance of ecosystems are shifted, as they currently are by human society. A key pollinator, without which countless species of fauna and flora (including ourselves) would inevitably perish, the bee has become an iconic global symbol of our need to protect the natural world during the climate crisis.
We used a detailed illustration from the published work of Maria Sibylla Merian to base our embroidery on. A German born naturalist and illustrator, Maria set out to sea in her 50s to follow her passion. Accompanied by her youngest daughter Dorothea, in 1699 they set sail on a five-year voyage to study the insects of Dutch Surinam on the east coast of South America. As a woman, and a divorcee, this was something that was just not done in the 17th century. Much like the industrious little bee, she faced incredible challenges. Yet she embraced them fully and produced some of the most detailed scientific illustrations demonstrating the life-cycle of insects of the day. We hope to emulate her bravery and strength of spirit as we move into a critical period in our planet’s ecological history.
Hope the Whale
In 2017 “Dippy the dinosaur”, the much loved cast of a Diplodocus which had welcomed visitors to the Natural History Museum's main hall since 1979, was replaced by a symbol of hope for the future. Much as Dippy was, Hope the blue whale has become an internationally recognised symbol of the Museum, so it felt fitting that she feature in our designs.
Blue whales are the largest animals that have ever lived on our planet. A species that has bounced back after nearly becoming extinct through hunting, they are considered a powerful symbol of hope; a visceral reminder that whilst our planet’s ecosystems and the species within them are fragile, we hold the power to protect them for future generations. For anyone who has visited the Museum, to stand in the main hall gazing up at the bones of this magnificent creature, posed as if diving from the ceiling towards arriving visitors, is an unforgettable experience that puts into perspective the beauty and fragility of the natural world around us. If the largest creature ever to have lived can be so easily be driven to the brink of extinction, so can we.